Links of the Day (01/31/10)

Here are three articles which I’ve read over the last few days:

(1) “Steve Jobs and the Economics of Elitism” [New York Times] – A brief look into how Apple represents the “auteur model of innovation,” not to mention a model of restraint in product design.

(2) “The Lessons of Lady Gaga” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting article that takes a glimpse into the business-savvy singer who opened the 2010 Grammy Awards. Lady Gaga affectionately dubs her fans “little monsters.”

(3) “In Tough Economic Times, Shoppers Take Haggling to New Heights” [Washington Post] – what average consumers are doing (or should be doing) in these tough economic times. Great read.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading: Book Review

Today, I finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Invitation to a Beheading. It’s a fairly short novel, at around 220 pages, and I finished reading it in a span of two days.

This is an interesting work, full of vivid imagery, surreal settings, and twisted, sometimes irrational, dialogue. The plot revolves around a young man named Cincinnatus C., who is condemned to death (by beheading) for committing a crime of “gnostical turpitude.” The crime itself is imaginary, so no definition is provided. The majority of the novel takes place inside a prison cell, where Cincinnatus is visited by jailers, an executioner who pretends to be a fellow prisoner, and by his in-laws, who bring their furniture (not to mention household utensils and “sections of walls”) with them into Cincinnatus’s prison cell. The musings of Cincinnatus are bizarre: in one part of the novel, the protagonist imagines the characters as miniature people.

You’re unsure at first, but you discover maybe a quarter through the novel that Cincinnatus has grand visions (or illusions of grandeur). He has a notebook where he writes down his thoughts and what he encounters in his daily life (“to write letters to various objects and natural phenomena”) within the fortress in which he is confined. At times you think he is absolutely clueless about his situation, as the questions he asks may be mistaken for those coming from a child. Still, he tries to reconcile his (grim) situation…

You don’t really read this novel for its plot, absurd as it may be. You read it to digest the dialogue and Nabokov’s eloquent narration. At the end of the novel, Cincinnatus is taken to be hanged, and the way the ending unfolds is just sublime. I read it over multiple times just to make sure I followed (a foreshadowing three-fourths of the way into the novel: “Cincinnatus allowed them the right to exist, supported them, nourished them with himself”).

If you haven’t read any of Nabokov’s work, don’t make this your first. I would recommend reading Nabokov’s Magnum opus, Lolita, first. Then, I highly recommend reading Pale Fire (which I enjoyed much more than Invitation to a Beheading).

Nabokov himself said of this novel: “The worldling will deem it a trick. Old men will hurriedly turn from it to regional romances and the lives of public figures.” But prior to that sentence, the best line: “It [Invitation to a Beheading] is a violin in a void.” Take it for what it is.

The rest of this review is the presentation of certain quotes I found interesting, and where appropriate, my dissection of these quotes.

Continue reading

Link of the Day (01/25/10)

There is one article I want to highlight for today. It is so interesting that it deserves to stand on its own as the link of the day.

(1) “The Chess Master and the Computer” [New York Review of Books] – an incredibly well-written and thought-provoking piece by Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time. In the article, Garry Kasparov discusses his play against computers, from the 1980s to the showdown with Deep Blue in 1997 to playing against modern computer chess programs.

Most intriguing to me are Mr. Kasparov’s thoughts on the possibility of solving chess. Imagine this scenario: you make a move in chess, and the computer would be able to calculate the best move under the circumstances and predict the likelihood of achieving mate (and in how many moves it will occur). The concept of solving chess is something I have been thinking about for over ten years, so it’s refreshing to read a Grandmaster’s opinion:

Another group postulated that the game would be solved, i.e., a mathematically conclusive way for a computer to win from the start would be found. (Or perhaps it would prove that a game of chess played in the best possible way always ends in a draw.) Perhaps a real version of HAL 9000 would simply announce move 1.e4, with checkmate in, say, 38,484 moves. These gloomy predictions have not come true, nor will they ever come to pass. Chess is far too complex to be definitively solved with any technology we can conceive of today.

So Mr. Kasparov is not excluding the possibility of chess being solved one day; he simply argues that it is inconceivable to solve the game of chess with the hardware we have today. Mr. Kasparov goes on to explain:

The number of legal chess positions is 1040, the number of different possible games, 10120. Authors have attempted various ways to convey this immensity, usually based on one of the few fields to regularly employ such exponents, astronomy. In his book Chess Metaphors, Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy. Another staple, a variation of which is also used by Rasskin-Gutman, is to say there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe. All of these comparisons impress upon the casual observer why brute-force computer calculation can’t solve this ancient board game.

If you are at all interested in chess, computer science, or algorithms, I highly encourage you to read the entire article.

Links of the Day (01/24/10)

Here are two interesting articles I read today:

(1) “Moscow’s Stray Dogs” [Financial Times] – a descriptive and insightful look into the population of roughly 35,000 stray dogs in Moscow. The articles goes in depth into the four types of dogs roaming the streets of Moscow (based on the dogs’ character, how they forage for food, their level of socialization to people, and the ecological niche they inhabit). What was most interesting to me was reading about the evolution of the dogs. Most intriguing are the Moscow Metro dogs:

They orient themselves in a number of way…They figure out where they are by smell, by recognising the name of the station from the recorded announcer’s voice and by time intervals. If, for example, you come every Monday and feed a dog, that dog will know when it’s Monday and the hour to expect you, based on their sense of time intervals from their ­biological clocks.

The metro dog also has uncannily good instincts about people, happily greeting kindly passers by, but slinking down the furthest escalator to avoid the intolerant older women who oversee the metro’s electronic turnstiles.

(2) “Underwater, but Will They Leave the Pool?” [New York Times] – an interesting look into why the mortgage default rates are so low.

Links of the Day (01/22/10)

Here are some of the interesting articles and blog posts I’ve read recently:

(1) “Hope” [Sergey Brin's Blog] – Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, traveled to Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake struck the tiny island nation on January 12. In his blog post, he talks about what he has seen and concludes with this powerful message:

While each of us is a citizen of a particular country, we are all citizens of the world. The responsibility falls on all of us to lend a hand when a tragedy of this magnitude befalls some of us.

(2) “A Culture in Jeopardy, Too” [New York Times]- a beautiful, moving photo essay by Maggie Stebber for the New York Times Lens blog. On the resilience of the Haitian people:

Haitians are not waiting for handouts. They are rebuilding their homes and getting on with their lives, getting back to business in the markets and on the roads. They cannot afford to wait for foreigners who can’t get organized quickly enough.

(3) “Architect, or Whatever” [New York Times] – interesting to read what some people are doing in these hard economic times.

Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Book Review

This is the third book I have finished reading in 2010, but Seth Godin’s Linchpin is the first book I will review here. I found out about this book from reading Seth’s blog (which I read daily, and I recommend you start reading as well, if you don’t read it already). In December 2009, I saw Seth’s post about launching his book in advance to motivated readers:

For a select group of motivated readers, I want to send you a copy of Linchpin (at my expense) three weeks before anyone else can buy one. My US publisher is not sending free review copies to magazines (the few that are left), newspaper editors, TV shows, any of the usual media suspects. Instead, we’re allowing people like you to raise their hands and, if they like the book, asking them to tell the world about it in January.

The filter for these motivated readers? A minimum $30 to Acumen Fund. I made my donation within two minutes of reading Seth’s blog post and was subsequently put on the mailing list (to receive updates about this book). I received my copy of Linchpin in the mail about a week ago, and finished reading it yesterday. What follows is my brief review, with snippets of my favorite quotes and my thoughts, where applicable.

Continue reading

Links of the Day (01/12/10)

Two must-read posts from today, one slightly humorous and the other much less so.

(1) “Conan O’Brien Says He Won’t Host ‘Tonight Show’ After Leno” [New York Times] – Conan came out with a marvelous statement saying that hosting The Tonight Show after midnight will “will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” The statement is so bold and refreshing that perhaps he should have started the statement with “Inhabitants of the Universe” rather than the more mundane “People of Earth.”

(2) “A New Approach to China” [Official Google Blog] – in this groundbreaking post, Google outlines a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on their infrastructure coming from China. The entire post is a must-read, and the conclusion cannot be missed:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

Robert Scoble called it the “bravest corporate move I’ve ever seen a tech company make.” I think it’s a very strong statement, but we shall see how Google actually responds in the coming weeks.

Update: Another worthy reaction to the Google news comes via Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?. Jeff Jarvis writes:

I have been consistent in my criticism of Google’s actions in China. And so now I have not choice but to become even more of a fanboy. I applaud Google for finally standing up to the Chinese dictatorship and for free speech.

Will the Chinese people revolt at losing Google? We can only hope. Will other companies now have to hesitate before doing the dictators’ bidding? We can only hope. Will Google be punished by Wall Street? It probably will. But as I’ve argued, we should hope that Google’s pledge, Don’t be evil, will one day be chiseled over the doors of Wall Street.